Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Think the Whales are Saved? Think Again.

Save the whales? Didn't we do this already? This is a question I've heard quite a bit lately. The truth is that although some whale species have increased in numbers due to the conservation efforts of the 70s and 80s, most species are still threatened and many are at the brink of extinction. The issue is current. One of the final acts of the Bush administration was to kick-off the process of effectively ending the international moratorium on commercial whaling by pulling together a "small working group" and drafting text that extends "scientific whaling rights" into international waters. I recently had the pleasure of attending a presentation by Jake Levenson of the International Fund for Animal Welfare that helped summarize the current and continued threats to whales worldwide.

*Humpback whale. Photo © IFAW

Many people believe that the major threat to whale species was solved with the 1986 worldwide commercial whaling ban. However, an estimated 30,000 whales have been killed in the last two decades since the ban. Japan has increased its “scientific whaling” practices which are allowed under the treaty. Iceland also continues its whaling practices using this loophole. Whaling ships in Iceland often follow whale watching vessels to find easy targets. These hunting practices often involve the use of grenade tipped or explosive harpoons, which promise to provide an 'instantaneous' death but often take several hours to kill the animal. Multiple gunshots are often used to 'speed up' the process. Although this whaling is done in the name of scientific research, all of the scientific information that is gathered can now be obtained through humane practices. Additionally, meat and oil products from endangered whale species (by products from scientific whaling) can be found in markets in several countries.

Aside from the direct threats of commercial whaling efforts, whales face three major anthropogenic threats: sound pollution, vessel collisions and entanglement. Sound travels twenty-five times faster underwater than it does through air. For most marine life, sound is not only something that is heard, but also something that is felt. Whales have evolved to communicate across oceans, in order to find hunting grounds or potential mates. Ocean background noise levels have doubled every decade for the last 60 years, causing confusion, navigation issues and potentially inhibiting mating. The primary causes of increased ocean noise include oil exploration, oil related construction and drilling, military sonar and increased shipping activity. Mass strandings of whales can be linked to military sonar activity nearby.

Vessel collisions can result in immediate death or severe injury to the whales. Amputation of fins or gashes that do not result in death can leave the animals open to infection and impair swimming abilities. Four out of six of the right whale deaths recorded in 2006 are attributed to collisions with ships. The reason is simple. Shipping has increased dramatically in the past decade and shipping lanes directly overlap right whale habitat.

More than 300,000 cetaceans die annually due to entanglement. IFAW believes this number is an extremely conservative estimate because it is reported by fishermen and not every country provides reports. The organization believes that the number is closer to 900,000. Entanglement is the number one cause of extinction among whale species. It is a slow, painful death generally realized through starvation or exhaustion. When entanglement does not result in the death of a whale it can compromise their physical conditions, leaving the individual prone to infection or adversely impacting its behavior. Again, understanding the problem is simple. There is too much rope in the water. Whale + Rope = Panic. Distentanglement efforts can be logistically difficult, dangerous to both whales and humans and can cause additional trauma to the whale. Whales must be tracked and essentially trapped in order to cut away the lines attached to their bodies.

IFAW has implemented some innovative and technologically interesting solutions to many of these anthropogenic threats. For example along the eastern coast of the United States they have deployed 13 buoys along major shipping routs. The buoys are equipped with hydrophones that listen for whale calls and alert the shore and nearby ships of whale activity nearby. The system works much like the ones used by airplanes and radio-control towers to avoid collisions in the air. There are also efforts underway to develop remote controlled rope cutting devices to provide a less traumatic disentanglement process.

Here's what you can do to Save the Whales (again)...

Send a letter to your congressperson(s) through Stop Whaling Now:

Stop Iceland from Killing Protected Whales:


IFAW is collecting worldwide pictures of people showing their support for the whales. 
As enough pictures for a country are collected, they are published in book form and sent to the government leaders of those countries.

Post your picture here:

*Twiggy Whale Tail Photo Courtesy of
For more information on IFAW and who they are check out their site:

1 comment:

Jake Levenson said...

J.E.N. Glad you liked my presentation! Thanks for writing this great blog post. I might have to link to it from our blog.
Thanks again,